BWW Review: VIVALDI'S THE FOUR SEASONS: A REIMAGINING, Sam Wanamaker PlayhouseThe final new production in The Winter Selection at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a daring masterclass in puppetry from Gyre & Gimble. They have used Max Richter's recompositions of Vivaldi's classic "Four Seasons" concertos as a basis to tell an original story about "life, death and renewal", focusing on the human angle rather than nature, taking the audience on an adventure with them. It will play alongside Emma Rice's The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales to close the season.

The show begins with a brief prelude from the group of six musicians, including pieces from Geminiani and Purcell as well as some extra movements from Vivaldi's other works - this sets the scene nicely, allowing the audience to familiarise themselves with the sounds of the baroque instruments being played. Led by solo violinist Jorge Jiminez, the sextet skilfully brings the score to life and, thanks to Bill Barclay's new arrangements, creates the illusion that there are many more hidden away in the gallery.

Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié have taken the Japanese art of Bunraku as their inspiration for the style of puppetry employed in the show, putting their own stamp on it. The puppets themselves are reminiscent of the wooden mannequins some people will remember from The Generation Game, though with a heightened sense of humanity about them; there is subtle musculature on the limbs and the hint of a face, left as a "neutral mask" to keep the attention on the puppetry itself. This stripped-back approach to storytelling gives the audience the unique opportunity to feel their own way through the events onstage.

Instead of being shown a specific action, you can go with your instincts - for example, I saw the characters as a man and woman with their son, but I overheard someone afterwards referring to the child as a "she". Some parts of it are more abstract than others, so there's a good balance of universally recognisable scenarios and moments where you rely on your imagination. Having it open to the viewer's own personal interpretation makes it incredibly inclusive, and is a gripping experience from start to finish.

Great designs and intentions can only go so far, and that's where the puppeteers come in. They almost literally breathe life into their charges, expertly manipulating them from a slight touch to expansive movements across the performance space. Dressed all in black, they mostly stay in the shadows and allow the puppets to be the centre of attention - but the occasional bit of interaction provides a great touch of humour, and shows their commitment to the world they're building. Everything happens so seamlessly, from their awareness of each other's presence to the slight movement of the set (Paul Wills).

Gyre & Gimble have created an emotional rollercoaster, filled with touching and charming moments - and animated with incredible skill by talented musicians and master puppeteers. A night you will never forget.

Vivaldi's The Four Seasons: A Reimagining is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 21 April

Picture credit: Steve Tanner

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From This Author Debbie Gilpin